Creating a Good Happy Ending


Creating a Good Happy Ending

In the last post, I discussed how happy endings have fallen out of favor. But I understand that you still might want write one. So let’s talk about that.

Pitfalls to look for

There are some cues to when you might be heading down the feel-goodism path. Here’s what to look for in your story.

Things come together too easily. Brenda gets into the college of her choice. At the freshman meet and greet, she is introduced to this great guy. She marries him, they live happily ever after. Exactly what want for our own lives; boring fiction. A happy ending isn’t credible unless there are some roadblocks on the way to it.

Characters have to be bent out of shape to make the ending work. To this point in the novel, Jordie has been a lovely guy—considerate, generous, open-hearted (by the by, probably not a very interesting character). Suddenly, he deceives his girlfriend by convincing her that her BFF is coming onto him. I mean, he has to do that as you are planning a great knock-down, drag-out fight between him and the girlfriend. Although I suppose this betrayal immediately makes him more interesting, a happy ending in this case will be unsatisfying to the reader because it sort of comes out of the blue.

Deus ex machina. Or ‘God in the machine.’  Any time you have written yourself into a corner in the plot and you get out of it by introducing a never-before-seen character to save the day, a trapdoor in a bungalow—you get the picture. Major coincidence (protagonist happens to run into the one person who can save him), while not exactly the same, are nevertheless also taboo.

How to create a credible happy ending

So, to sort of turn around the pitfalls above, here are some of questions you need to ask yourself about your piece if you are heading to a happy ending.

How does your protagonist struggle to achieve the happy ending? In the example above, Brenda might like the guy but he’s already going out with someone else. She has to get his attention. The guy’s girlfriend is actually really sweet and Brenda feels guilty about her plan. You see, complications. A happy ending has to be earned.

Does he achieve it through his own efforts? Today, readers might be a little skeptical if, as in  It’s a Wonderful Life, a friend in Europe agrees to advance $25,000 to cover the debt the hero owes. Usually, the protagonist needs to achieve the happy ending because of his own strivings. i.e. No deus ex machina.

Are his actions consistent? If you need Jordie to lie to his girlfriend as in the example above, then adjust your portrayal of him so that readers have a few doubts about him. If they get to the lying scene without them, both that scene and the happy ending are going to be incredible (but not in a good way).

Have seeds of happy ending been planted? Don’t have to be and in fact, shouldn’t be obvious. But little throwaway moments that the reader can take in, perhaps without even noticing them, that make a happy ending realistic. Great surprise that Roger isn’t the last one to leave the bar; he is losing weight without working out; he doesn’t fly off the handle as much. Spread over the course of the novel, these casual comments can make the happy ending of Roger going to A.A. believable.

So, you can still do a happy ending—you just need to build up to it.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Feel-Good Movies


It’s a Wonderful Life: Feel-Good Movies

Christmas is the time for feel-good movies like The Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (okay, TV movie) and It’s a Wonderful Life. We bask in stories which not only end happily but we know they’re going to. We can sit through the trials of the hero/heroine quite contentedly, knowing Things Will Work Out.

A great example of this genre is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In it, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) maintains a Savings and Loan company. He wants fair mortgages  for the townspeople rather than them being forced to deal with the town’s greedy banker. However, money inadvertently goes astray and George realizes he will be charged with fraud. Projecting how this shame will reflect on his loved ones, he decides he is better off dead. An angel prevents his suicide and shows him how things would have been if he had never been born. George realizes how many people his life has benefitted and decides not to jump off the bridge. When he returns home, he finds that town folk and distant friends have donated money to replace the missing amount.

The feel-good part of the movie happens when George’s friends contribute to make up the shortfall. If the movie had ended with George’s decision to live, it might still have been a good movie, but it probably would not have had the feel-good touch we all love.

The problem with feel-good stories

It was remarkably hard to get Google to say anything negative about feel-good movies. No matter what I input along with the term—criticism of, problem with, etc.—all I got were lists of the best of them. Only dictionaries  would admit that the term feel-good relates to or promotes “an often specious sense of satisfaction or well-being.” Example: “feel-good reform program that makes no changes.”

Because, let’s face it, calling a movie or novel ‘feel-good’, is often a dismissive way to denigrate a story. What in other times would have been thought of as just a ‘good’ movie, might now be flipped off with the addition of ‘feel.’ Why does a happy ending in modern works now run the risk of being disparaged in this way?

Frankly, who knows. It might be because we have been more suspicious of others’ motives than in earlier days. Or perhaps we are less willing to accept that good outcomes are as frequent and/or uncomplicated. Or maybe the literary fashion has just changed. But as a writer, you ignore this zeitgeist at your peril.

How does it affect your writing?

Interestingly enough, it might be easier to see the effects of feel-goodism in memoirs. How would you feel if you read a memoir where everything turned out beautifully for the protagonist, that she was never guilty of a value-challenging act, and everyone was lovely to everyone else?

In addition to being bored to death, I’d probably think, “She’s lying through her teeth.”

In fiction, it is more difficult to pick up when this phenomenon is operating. But you need to step back from your story to ensure that the happy ending is deserved, if you know what I mean. So how do you write a happy ending which doesn’t get the finger for feel-goodism? Next post.

A Gentleman in Moscow


A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles’ widely acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is the story of a Russian aristocrat during the Russian Revolution. His sanctuary/house arrest is the luxurious Metropol Hotel where he meets a girl who shows him the inner workings of the hotel. A moody chef, among other characters, figure in his discovery.

I found I enjoyed reading the novel while reading it but when I put it down, it took me a long time to pick it up again. This happened again and again. At about page 250, I think I figured out what was causing the sporadic reading.

The novel has lots of events, but no real plot. Things happen but the novel doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

A Gentleman in Moscow has other charms

Although I enjoy a good plot, I recognize that novels can be excellent for other reasons. I can and do appreciate living in the world Amor Towles created. The Count is quite a delightful character and his insights into Life are both apt and apropos. NPR’s review of the book says:

All of the verbal excess, the gently funny mock-epic digressions, the small capers and cast of colorful characters, add up to something undeniably mannered but also undeniably pleasant.

And I agree. It is lovely to read when I am reading it.

But there is the problem that I keep putting it down and not picking it up for a long time.

Lots of events, no story

This is tough concept to get. The idea that lots can happen, but there is no real story. The closest thing I think I can get to is when you watch, willingly or otherwise, somebody else’s vacation photos. Lots of places are visited, lots of boats boarded, lots of meals consumed. But it isn’t so much a story as a litany of events.

Which is fine for holiday snaps but readers usually expect more from a novel. I am prepared for people to argue that A Gentleman in Moscow does so have a story. I might even agree with them. But fundamentally, although things happen, it doesn’t have a sense of forward motion. The sense that the protagonist is going to end up somewhere different or be someone at least slightly different.

It might be argued that it is more real life to have a protagonist who is adapting as well as he can to a difficult situation. True. But, as I have said Fiction is Not Life and how it really happened is not actually an adequate defense against the charge of no story.

Fiction has its own rules. In order to feel authentic on the page, it often requires a distortion of what usually happens in real life. And generally, fiction requires that the story goes somewhere even if we don’t necessarily expect our own lives to come to a climax which is resolved in a surprising yet satisfying way.

Well, it is possible that A Gentleman in Moscow does suddenly develop a forward motion even if there was no sign of it at page 250. I’ll let you know when I get back to it.

Next post—how to turn events into a plot.

Breaking the Rules


Breaking the Rules

The previous post had examples of where the author broke what seem to be cardinal rules of writing and not only got away with it, but produced a stunning novel.

Great, I can do what I want

This type of break-the-mold book can make some writers think, “I can write whatever I want because these celebrated authors did.” Given this mindset, the writer might be resistant to feedback which tries to steer him to more tried and true methods. He might even see it as trying to dampen or change his unique voice.

Uh-huh. Well, okay, there’s always the possibility you’re writing an iconoclastic novel which will confound your critics when published to great acclaim. I always leave that possibility open. And I do buy that if you don’t believe in your novel, nobody else will. So, you may be right. But on the other hand, you might not be. So, why not read the rest of this before you toss the idea?

Walking then running

These writers didn’t skip from novice to iconoclast in one leap. Cormac McCarthy has been publishing novels for over 35 years. Similarly, Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has both a long history of writing for prestigious journals but also had already published a much acclaimed novel, Moth Smoke, before Fundamentalist.

These authors undoubtedly spent many long years honing their craft so that they could use the traditional methods with ease and mastery. It is only after they reached that high level of competence that they understood when a particular technique didn’t serve the needs of the story, and launched into something which amazed their readers with its audacity.

How do you square the rules circle?

So, what if your writing teacher or writer friends are telling you one thing and you think you’re following a different star? Well, as I’ve elaborated in other posts, slow down the automatic reaction to reject the feedback and try to find anything that might be useful in it.

Say the feedback is that your descriptions are too long even if beautifully written. This sticks in your craw. They admit the passages are stunning and still want them cut down. What’s with that? Have they no literary sensibility?

So, here’s where you need to slow down. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Is there anything useful in the feedback?
  • Too long for what reason? What is it preventing the reader from doing?
  • Is it possible that the delightful description is slowing the action?

You might huff that your readers should invest the time required to allow you to fully paint the atmosphere in which the action is taking. Fair enough. You may be right.


However, how horrible would it be if you experimented with moving more quickly to action?

I’m not suggesting you do so and then lay the new piece before your critics as you confess the error of your ways. But just when it’s you and the computer, could you give it a try and then decide its value? Does it help the narrative? Does it serve the story better to rein in the description? If the answer is on balance, yes, then factor this into your future writing. If on balance, no, then you’ve seriously considered the feedback and decided to ignore it which is okay.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist and All the Pretty Horses


The Reluctant Fundamentalist and All the Pretty Horses

The really annoying thing about writing is that for every sacrosanct rule that we’re supposed to live by, there’s some writer who comes up with a narrative which breaks it and damn if it doesn’t work. Like Cormac McCathy’s All the Pretty Horses and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Take the novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Reading the first few pages, I thought, “This can’t be a first person monolog for the entire novel. That’s ridiculous. It’s never going to work.” It was and it did!

The author breaks the monolog, in fact although not in form, by having the protagonist ‘repeat’ the words of the American he is speaking to before responding. Similarly, there are long flashbacks which take the more standard form.

But still, a full novel monolog. It shouldn’t work, it does, and is even necessary for the nature of the ending (read it—it’s worth it).

All the Pretty Horses

Similarly, Cormac McCarthy, the author of, in particular, All the Pretty Horses. It won the National Book Award in 1992 so I thought I would give it a go.

I hated it at the beginning. Hated, hated, hated it. For one thing, McCarthy had dialogue like (this is my imitation of him):

“Is Ruth coming?”

“Nah, she’s busy.”

“Won’t be no fun without her.”

Who’s Ruth? Who’s talking?

Also, he had long passages in Spanish (without translation) which moved the action forward. And his sentences were often (again my imitation): He hit him with a shovel until he intervened. Aaahh! These are all male cowboys. Give me a hint!

I was pissed but decided to read exactly half-way before giving up to figure out why he was so praised.

Around page 75, I fell in love. The descriptions of the West spoke to me as if I had been born to it. With characters who don’t talk much and whose internal life is almost never revealed. With only their actions to show, McCarthy created a compelling story with basically one authorial hand tied behind his back!

Yes, he still did unattributed dialogue, untranslated Spanish, and confusing pronouns. But it didn’t matter. I loved, loved, loved it.

So some authors can break from the traditional way and make it work. Sometimes, wonderfully.

Accordingly, can you break the rules, too? Next post.